Posted by: Blue Lou Logan | December 31, 2012

Nigerian Piracy: A Different Kind of Crime


The new pirates

In a “Booze and Boat Bits” way back in August 2011, I noted the rise of piracy off the coast of Nigeria.  A week ago, on Christmas Eve, as Americans were reaching Grandma’s house, drinking eggnog, and settling down for the proverbial long winter’s night, four sailors were kidnapped from the MV Asso Ventuno 40 nautical miles off the coast of Bayelsa State of Nigeria in the Niger Delta.  This is only the latest event.  In an article for the Associated Press, reporter Nicole Winfield wrote, “Pirate attacks are on the rise in West Africa’s Gulf of Guinea, which follows the continent’s curve from Liberia to Gabon.  Over the last year and a half, piracy there has escalated from low-level armed robberies to hijackings and cargo thefts.”  I have written on numerous occasions about modern piracy on the other side of Africa.  Somali pirates, as recently noted, are quieting down.  Attention is now shifting, but the new piracy is very different.  Somali piracy, as argued by Jay Bahadur, is (was?) based on clan affiliation and short-term, opportunistic bands.  Nigerian piracy–and there seems to be a consensus that the pirates in the Gulf of Guinea are largely Nigerian–is based on a new kind of organized crime.  Indeed, the analyses I’ve read imply that crime is essentially a cultural value in Nigeria, and the new piracy is simply crime moved offshore.

The Gulf of Guineau

The cultural and political history of Nigeria at least partly explains why Nigeria is so rife with crime.  Like many African states, the ‘nation’ of Nigeria is a bit of a construction.  There are more than 250 ethnic groups speaking perhaps 500 languages within its borders.  The most dominant ethnic groups are the Yoruba, in the now Christian southern part of Nigeria and neighboring countries who comprise nearly a quarter of Nigeria’s population, the Igbo of southeastern Nigeria, and the largest group of all, the Hausa-Fulani who dominate the Muslim north.  The British were the dominant colonial power here in the 19th century, but even as the area became a Colony and Protectorate in the British Empire in the early 20th century, the north and the south were still treated as different administrative areas.  Only after World War II, when nationalism led to independence and self-government, was Nigeria ‘united,’ tho’ with deep economic and social disparities between groups and regions and thus perpetual internal conflict, including a three year civil war.  Consequently, the government of Nigeria has been a series of “Republics,” each political era usually ending with unrest and political and often military coup.  The president since 2010, Goodluck Jonathan (only in Africa, right?), took office after the death of Umaru Yar’Adua, who had support among the Hausa-Fulani.  Jonathan, however, is from the Ijaw, a less influential ethnic group, and is thus almost powerless to fight the corruption that has long infested Nigerian politics.  In short, the unstable government isn’t just unable to fight crime, it is directly part of it.

Crime in Nigeria is “organized” but not in the manner of Capone or the Cosa Nostra.  As discussed in the online article “Defining Organized Crime” by Mike La Sorte, Professor Emeritus at SUNY, organized crime is now transnational, “a series of networks, a set of alliances, often across national boundaries, among both criminal groups and common criminals.” “Nigerian Criminal Enterprises,” as La Sorte calls them, exist in at least sixty countries around the world.  There is at least some pyramidal hierarchy, but there is also a more fluid network based on ethnic, tribal, and clan loyalties.  Then there are freelancers and entrepreneurs who will engage in any criminal activity that seems likely to bring profit.  The flexible, adaptable nature of Nigerian crime means that it can take many forms and strike nearly anyone.  Millions of American dollars have been lost to email confidence frauds, what are sometimes called “419 scams” after the statute that addresses fraud in Nigerian law.  There are local gangs, drug traffickers, and, finally, pirates.  La Sorte states, “Lawlessness has become the norm in large portions of Nigeria, at all levels, and that criminality has been exported abroad.”  There is the danger of stereotyping Nigerians as con artists and gangsters, yet it is hard to look at the evidence and not think that crime does not have deep cultural roots and importance in this country.

Oil and the damage done

The final ingredient, and what is driving Nigerian crime to sea, is oil.  Oil was discovered off the coast of Nigeria in the 1950’s, flooding a newly independent nation with wealth.  Starting in the 1970’s, when wars in the Middle East drove up the price of oil, petroleum became more and more important to the Nigerian economy, and Nigerian petroleum became more and more important to the world.  As of 2000, oil and gas exports accounted for more than 98% of Nigeria’s export earnings, about 83% of its government revenue, and 95% of its foreign exchange earnings.  According to the International Energy Agency, Nigeria is the 10th largest oil producer in the world.  The United States is Nigeria’s biggest customer; it is projected that by 2015 a quarter of our imported oil will come from Nigeria.  Where there is big money, crime is soon to follow.  At the highest level, corruption puts money in the hands of very few.  Among those less fortunate, the poor who see none of the profits and instead see local environmental destruction, oil is a target of both theft and political unrest.  Gangs and militias siphon off crude from land pipe lines in a practice called “illegal bunkering.”  Political insurgents attack oil facilities.  And then there are the tankers offshore.

Energy Centurion

Oil is to the Nigerian pirate what Spanish gold and silver were to the Caribbean buccaneer.  2009 marked the rise of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea, and it has been growing rapidly ever since.  A January 2010 article by Scott Baldauf at the Christian Science Monitor stated that there were 32 pirate strikes in the Gulf of Guinea in the first nine months of 2009.  In an article two years later, Baldauf reported that there were 45 incidents in 2010, 64 in 2011, and 10 in the first two months of 2012 alone.  Where the Somalis’ goal was always raw ransom, the Nigerians want the cargo.  Seized tankers are taken to illegal ports or chartered tankers to receive the stolen oil.  One recent example is the Energy Centurion, a Greek-owned tanker with a Russian crew that was captured on August 28th off the coast of Lomé, the capitol of Togo.  The pirates exchanged fire with a Togo Navy patrol but managed to slip away and flee towards Benin.  Only two days later, after stealing 3,000 metric tons of fuel, the pirates released the vessel with no harm to the crew.

MV Asso Ventuno

The attack on the MV Asso Ventuno was, from what we can tell, about kidnapping, not turning stolen crude into cash.  This is not to be interpreted as a change in the pirates’ goals but as another manifestation of Nigerian crime.  The AP article cited above describes how gangs have kidnapped both foreigners and middle- and upper-class Nigerians, whether at sea or ashore.  “The end of the year usually sees an uptick in criminal activity as well, as criminal gangs target the wealthy returning to the country to celebrate the holidays.”  Some of the kidnappings on land have been credited to Islamic groups, leading, inevitably, to fear of al-Qaeda.  The connections between piracy and terrorism, however, are as weak in Nigeria as they are in Somalia:  All of the Islamic activity is in northern Nigeria, nowhere near the sea.

Nigerian Naval ship

The international response to piracy in the Gulf of Guinea is currently walking a fine line. There are none of the cooperative naval patrols as there are in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean.  Instead, the United States has an “Africa partnership station” in the area as part of the Africa Command (AFRICOM).  Created in 2007, then President Geroge W. Bush described in a press release the purpose of AFRICOM:  “This new command will strengthen our security cooperation with Africa and create new opportunities to bolster the capabilities of our partners in Africa. Africa Command will enhance our efforts to bring peace and security to the people of Africa and promote our common goals of development, health, education, democracy, and economic growth in Africa.”  The “station,” always on a Navy ship, never at land, is the center for joint training between the U.S. and African nations.  This is a delicate way for the U.S. to have a military presence without the controversy of establishing a permanent base.  It is also a way for the Nigerian Navy, one of Africa’s largest but not nearly big enough for the whole of the the Gulf of Guinea or the number of attacks, to get a little backup.  The United Nations, meanwhile, began to pay attention in November 2011 and a year later convened a meeting of the Security Council to address West African piracy.  The resulting statement states, “The response in the Gulf of Guinea and elsewhere could rely on lessons learned from Somalia, including a focus on modernizing counter-piracy laws, strengthening capacities for maritime law enforcement and crime investigation, supporting regional networks and increasing knowledge sharing.”  Yet I wonder whether this statement totally misses the mark.  Not only is piracy of a very different nature in each place, but also, really, the current suppression of Somali piracy seems to be the direct result of tight coordination among the international patrols, not the bolstering of local government and the enforcement of maritime law.  The solution to piracy in the Gulf of Guinea has clearly yet to present itself.  In my opinion, that solution must take into account that piracy is not an isolated phenomenon but part of a much, much larger problem of widespread crime.  But, then, I wonder if crime in West Africa is too widespread and deeply rooted to be ‘solved’ at all.

I learned the acronym TIA–This is Africa–from the excellent film Blood Diamond, one of the default DVD’s in our house.  My former coworker and friend Stephen, who left his day job to fully pursue international volunteering, told me that TIA was hardly invented by Hollywood imagination.  TIA is the concept that Africa has its own logic, a different set of expectations than what we Americans and Europeans assume normalcy to be.  Perhaps in part, TIA includes the idea that in Africa suffering, hardship, violence, and upheaval are just part of the way it is and the way it’s always been.  This may sound defeatist, but TIA can put the reasons for piracy in Somalia and maybe more so in the Gulf of Guinea in perspective.  If we are to pity the impoverished of Nigeria, living in polluted squalor in a land where some are incredibly wealthy, is piracy a means of rebellion?  Or, if we think of crime as intrinsic to Nigerian social worldview, is piracy merely the latest kind of 21st century scam?  Finally, perhaps, in West Africa, is it possible that we cannot distinguish between these possibilities?


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